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Friday, July 6, 2012

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Rules and regulations: Non-Japanese residents line up at the Tokyo Regional Immigration Bureau in Minato Ward. KYODO

New rules put scare into illegal immigrants

Greater control over foreigners could also cloud Japan's allure


The start next week of a new registration system for foreigners is causing worries among illegal foreign residents and asylum seekers that their lives in Japan will become more restricted because they will no longer have a way to prove their identity, thus obstructing access to education or health services as well as getting a job.

The changes that take effect Monday, based on a revision to the immigration control law, also create new procedural burdens on all non-Japanese staying in the country more than three months, such as an obligation to report to the immigration office within 14 days after losing a job or getting divorced. Critics say this reflects the government's intention to strengthen control over foreign residents.

An estimated 80,000 to 90,000 people were living illegally in Japan as of the end of 2011. Over the course of the year, 1,867 people applied for refugee status, the most since 1982, when the country started accepting such applications. Only 21 were successful.

"The new changes will make us more invisible and nonexistent, even though we are human beings and are living in Japan," said Khaled Golavi, a 67-year-old Kurd who has been in Japan 22 years seeking asylum.

Current alien registration cards are issued by municipal and ward offices, and have been given to any foreign resident staying in the country 90 days or more regardless of the legality. Under the new system, the central government will issue cards only to foreigners who are legally residing in Japan longer than three months.

The changes to the immigration law coincide with a revision to the basic resident registration law, also taking effect Monday, under which legal foreign residents will be registered under the same resident registration system as Japanese nationals.

The official line is that the changes are aimed at unifying administrative work concerning foreigners into a single task undertaken by the central government and stepping up measures against illegal immigrants.

Local offices had complained of difficulties in properly registering foreign residents because some migrant workers move frequently but don't always make the proper notification.

Numerous letters mailed since May by local government offices to foreign residents, notifying them about the start of registration under the same system as Japanese, have been returned unopened, apparently because the foreigners aren't living at their registered address.

For example, in Shinjuku Ward, Tokyo, about 9,300 such notices, or 29 percent of those sent out, came back undelivered.

The amendment to the immigration control law will enable authorities to impose criminal penalties or cancel the visa status of foreigners who fail to provide notification of a change of address within 90 days.

Unlike the current system in which foreigners notify their municipal or ward office, they will have to notify the Justice Ministry or one of its approximately 75 local offices.

Also under the new system, foreign spouses of Japanese nationals or non-Japanese permanent residents could lose their residency status if they fail to "conduct activities normally carried out by spouses" for six months. This measure was introduced to curb bogus marriages.

Support groups for foreign residents say the stricter system of supervision ignores the way foreigners live in Japan, such as using alien registration cards to buy mobile phones or to get a job, and that it allows for arbitrary annulment or nonrenewal of visas by the ministry.

"There are concerns among foreigners that they may no longer be able to renew their driver's license or open a bank account," said Jotaro Kato, head of the Asian People's Friendship Society, a nonprofit organization offering support to foreigners in Japan.

"The impact of the new law on some foreigners, who will not have a document to prove their identity, could be very large," Kato said.

The changes could also make it difficult for illegal foreigners to earn a living, as employers will be subjected to punishment if they fail to report to immigration authorities about hiring foreigners, such as when they started or terminated their employment.

"How can foreigners continue living in Japan?" asked Kirinde Liyanaarachchi from Sri Lanka, who heads the Provisional Release Association in Japan, which helps people released by immigration authorities from detention under provisional conditions, including not being permitted to work.

"We would be like ghosts," said the 39-year-old, who himself is on provisional release.

Liyanaarachchi said the association is preparing to stage a demonstration Monday afternoon in front of the Justice Ministry to protest the new system.

There are also fears that some local governments will stop offering education and health care services to illegal foreign residents, as people overstaying their visa or seeking asylum will not be included in the new residence system, support groups said.

A survey conducted by the Tokyo Bar Association last October found that many of the 57 municipal and ward offices that responded think it will be difficult to provide services to undocumented foreign residents because it will be impossible to pinpoint their place of residence under the new registration system.

The survey also found concern that the measures by the central government to implement the new system are insufficient and that foreign residents haven't been provided enough information about it.

"There is hardly any substantial benefit for foreigners, and the revisions only increase burdens and supervision," said Yuki Maruyama, a lawyer and member of the Tokyo Bar Association's committee on protection of foreigners' human rights.

"As the number of foreigners to Japan dwindles, if the government moves to further tighten supervision (of foreign residents), I'm afraid Japan will not be an attractive destination for foreigners," Maruyama said.

An Immigration Bureau official contended that one of the aims of the new system is to make Japanese society "a place that is difficult for illegal residents to live in."

The ministry has said that for legal residents, the new law will boost convenience in some ways, for instance the residency period will be extended to five years from the current three and re-entry permits will no longer be required for people if they return to Japan within a year.

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